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55th annual Smith College book sale coming to Maryland State Fairgrounds

Still going strong, but dwindling volunteers worry about lack of younger alumnae

By Larry Perl, lperl@tribune.com

11:02 AM EDT, March 14, 2013

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Four volunteers, all graduates of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., spent a glorious Sunday cooped up inside a small warehouse in Timonium.

They were preparing more than 1,300 boxes of used books for moving trucks to deliver this week to the Maryland State Fairgrounds for the Smith College Club of Baltimore's 55th annual used book sale, from Friday, March 15, to Sunday, March 17.

"I'm tired," said Laura Mullally, of Pinehurst, Class of 1980, an assistant Maryland state's attorney.

"Not as tired as we will be on Monday," after the sale ends, said club president Mary Anderson, of Hampden, Class of 1986, a molecular biologist.

The book sale, a tradition that draws book lovers from as far away as Washington, raises money for an endowed scholarship fund at Smith College that has grown to roughly $500,000 since the first book sale in 1958. The fund pays partial tuition for two to three scholarship winners a year, all from Maryland.

"This funded me," said civil engineer Mariceleste Miller, of Owings Mills, class of 1990, who was working alone in one room, sorting recently donated books for next year's book sale.

In another room, book sale treasurer Carol Tiffany, of White Hall, Class of 1969, was putting together a hand truck. All around her were boxes of books stacked against walls with signs above, identifying them as humor, drama, travel, sports and self-help, among other categories.

Most of the books are donated on Sundays from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, then sorted by category and inspected for damage. Duplicate and unsold books are donated to the Book Thing in Waverly, Anderson said.

Anderson, Mullally, Tiffany and Miller are among an estimated 100 Baltimore-area alumnae of Smith, a women's liberal arts college and the largest of the so-called Seven Sisters of colleges. They take the club and the sale seriously.

"The book sale and I are the same age," said Mullally, who has been volunteering since 1981."We work year round."

The club has received every imaginable type of book, from first-edition rarities to one man's personal collection of erotic literature. But people also donate DVDs, bound volumes of sheet music, board games from the 1800s and family photo albums.

Anderson doesn't mind co-existing with an antique gun show that is scheduled at the fairgrounds the same weekend.

"We like gun enthusiasts because we have gun books," said Anderson, showing a bound collection of the magazine Guns & Ammo, from the 1960s. And she said the book sale usually gets walk-in traffic from other shows at the fairgrounds.

As times and technology change, club members are wondering how to deal with potential donations such as e-books, which could raise legal questions of ownership. And they haven't received donated encyclopedias in about 20 years, which they attribute to the advent of the Internet and search engines.

But Anderson isn't too concerned that books will become a things of the past.

"The book is here to stay," she said. "You can't read your Kindle in the bathtub."

And she noted that the book sale makes good money each year — how much she would rather not say, for fear of making the club a target of thieves, partly because a lot of cash changes hands at the sale.

Of greater concern to the volunteers is their diminishing numbers, with fewer younger alumnae becoming club members and volunteers.

"What you're looking at here is what used to be the younger club set," Anderson said. "Volunteerism is in decline. We're having trouble staffing the sale."

The Smith College book sale is one of the last of a dying breed in the region, Anderson said. She said Vassar College and Brandeis University no longer have area book sales.

The future of the Smith College Book Club sale is uncertain.

"We're committed to go to the 60th," Anderson said. "After the 60th, we need someone to take over from this crew."